By Ebrahim Rasool
I met Ahmad Kathrada in 1987. He had already served more than two decades in prison, mostly on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and the Rivonia Trialists. But now he was at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. I had eluded the Security Police for more than a year, but they caught up with me in June 1987. After a few months in solitary confinement at the Wynberg police cells, I was moved to Pollsmoor, into the care of Warrant Officer Gregory and Seargent Brand, two wardens who had largely been humanized by the Rivonia Trialists. It was Seargent Brand who decided that Ahmad Kathrada and I could do our regular visit to the Muslim chaplain, Moulana HashimCassiem together, to read Quran, to engage in discussion about Islam, religion and struggle, and simply to enjoy whatever friendship could be opened between a young UDF and Call of Islam activist and someone we revered and sang about: “Kathrada wethu, somlandela!” Our Kathrada, we will follow you!
Eid 1987 was particularly poignant. We – Muslim detainees, Muslims in the Ashley Forbes and Tony Yengeni trials; detainees and prisoners from other persuasions who simply wanted some companionship and spiritual sustenance, and Ahmed Kathrada, all gathered for the Eidprayers. I led Ahmed Kathrada and others in the soulful, mournful Eid Takbir that we inherited from our ancestors, the exiled and enslaved Muslims of the Cape. Indeed, God was greater than…. Then we learnt that spirituality and values, service and sacrifice, were more enduring than mere piety and compliance.
Ahmed Kathrada was the one we looked to on the eve of our freedom – that moment fraught both with anticipation and danger, between the release of political prisoners and the historic election in 1994 – to inspire us once again as he had inspired all South Africans upon his release. We now needed him to be part of charting a course for us as Muslims when we invited him to address the National Muslim Conference at UWC, Cape Town, where almost a thousand delegates gathered to represent about 750 Muslim organisations from all over the country and across all our doctrinal, political and cultural divides. That was when we claimed him as the most visible symbol of our capacity to sacrifice, and our ability to live by our values rather than our interests. That was where we heeded his advice: Muslims were created for freedom; democracy was the form shura assumed; and non-racial justice was the intention of God! Muslims have never looked back since in South Africa.
But Ahmed Kathrada was not an ethnic, religious or even simply a national resource. His story resonated across the world as it did when I hosted him in the USA. Across many major cities, Americans felt the vacuum after 1994. The continuum of protest against the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights Struggle to the Anti-Apartheid Movement had been interrupted. The people mobilized over that period – unionists and activists, conscious citizens and conscientisedpoliticians, students who by now had graduated into professions – wanted to hear his voice as the ANC turned 100, Mandela looked frail and South Africa appeared vulnerable. More importantly, America needed some moral clarity in the face of discrimination against African Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims; vulnerability to gun violence and extremism; and a penchant to manage all challenges unilaterally and militarily. As I listened to Ahmed Kathrada speak about his book, No Bread for Mandela, the simplicity of his message was spell-binding: you can prefer others above yourself; don’t sacrifice values in defence of values; security has to be mutual; human dignity is the highest value; and there is nothing achieved without sacrifice! He lived up to his values when Barack Obama visited Robben Island, and the Secret Service sought to impose themselves on Uncle Kathy’s carefully cultivated atmosphere of equality, inclusivity and humility. He did not hesitate to remind them of the holy ground they did not rule.
In 2009, I had joined Ahmed Kathrada in the ANC’s election campaign. I was advisor to President Mothlantheand Comrade Kathy and I spoke to Indian / Muslim meetings across Gauteng. Jacob Zuma was the ANC candidate for President, and Comrade Kathy believed that Zuma could usher in a less aloof, more inclusive, socially focused and economically responsive era of governance. His later outrage – expressed in his letter asking President Zuma to resign – was directly proportional to the level of unconditional support he gave him in that election campaign. That letter was written neither by one who was spiteful, nor by one who was an outsider to the ANC. It was not driven by hatred for the ANC or the partisan hope of advantage to another Party, as some who now quote it are guilty of. It came from a place of sadness and disappointment. It is precisely a deep love that could find expression in such a pained and evocative plea for the damage to be stopped, for the boil to be lanced, and the bleeding to be stanched against, and within, a Movement that Ahmed Kathrada had devoted his life to and of whose values he could rightly be called a custodian.
But Ahmed Kathrada is the gift that keeps on giving. His death may have stood between a nation unprepared for a reshuffle of government and a seismic shift in society and one that could use his funeral to be alerted to its imminence. His funeral, in full public glare, was the difference between a nation responding to impunity or impunity having to seek a fig leaf to explain itself. His memorials across the country may have been the difference between a nation shell-shocked and silent or a nation in full outraged voice. But now we must make his values, the full range of values – from the unfenced definition of justice learnt in the ANC, to the egalitarian instincts learnt in the Communist Party, to the jealous protection of all human dignity learnt from his faith – the distinction between those who love him and those who use him; between those who want the renewal of the ANC and those who want its burial; and between those whose call for the President’s departure come from a place of profound disappointment in the President and those for whom the President’s foibles are but manifestations of their racist assumptions.
So Ahmed Kathrada is no more, and his generation is departing. If we must cling to something, then let us cling to their spirit of selfless sacrifice in a time of selfish greed; let us hold onto their humility and simplicity even as arrogant power-mongering threatens; let us advance their vision of human inclusiveness in the face of all kinds of bigotry; let us fulfill their belief in a world that is more equal for all its citizens in an epoch of growing poverty; and let us learn their commitment to speaking for truth and justice when some would demand of us only silent condonation of the wrongs that they perpetrate!
From God we come and to God we return!
Rest in Peace!
Ebrahim Rasool is Founder of the World for All Foundation and formers Ambassador to USA, Premier of the Western Cape and former ANC WC Chairperson